Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel

African Asylum-Seekers in Israel: Crying for Justice at the Passover Seder

photo: Yotam Gidron
Date: 2.4.15 Source: Jewish Journal

When the ancient Israelites left Egypt, they were attacked during their long trek to the Promised Land. This has been the story of the Jewish nation for millennia: responding to persecutions and expulsions, which led to the unprecedented existential threat in the twentieth century, culminating with the creation of modern Israel as a refuge. The world, all too often, was silent. For us, with the fortitude to stand up for the commandments of justice, we dare not emulate the shameful example when Jews were refugees on our own doorstep. If there is one thing that Israel must get right, it is to serve as a global model for handling vulnerable, at-risk refugees. This Pesach, our hearts must be opened to the living haggadah.

Today, more than forty five thousand asylum-seekers from Africa in Israel have been marginalized, imprisoned, and informed of their approaching deportation. Some have left voluntarily since they don’t want to be held in prison indefinitely. Many had fled for their lives: from genocide in Darfur, from ethnic cleansing in the Nuba Mountains, from slavery in Eritrea, and from extreme poverty and crushing political oppression. While worldwide, 60 to 80 percent of refugees from Sudan and Eritrea gain refugee status, in Israel the number is far less with only about 1 percent (in 2011: 1 in nearly 5,000) being given refugee status.

This week, the Israeli government announced it is “planning to forcibly deport Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to ‘third countries.’ Those who refuse to leave will be jailed in Saharonim prison for an indefinite amount of time.” Specifically, according to Israel's Interior Ministry, asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea will have thirty days to leave Israel for a developing country that is not their home of origin (Rwanda or Uganda, probably), after which they will be subject to indefinite detention. There is no assurance that these asylum seekers will be granted refugee status in these countries either (each has its own violent political past) or that their safety is indeed guaranteed.

This policy appears to contradict the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 1951 Convention, of which Israel is a signatory nation. The document gives refugees certain rights, such as "the right not to be expelled" except in rare cases, such as criminal activity or if the refugee reflects a threat to the host state; the right "not to be punished for illegal entry," and the right to "housing," "education," and "public relief and assistance." The Convention indicates further that all refugees have the right to due process to appeal their case.

The hostility toward Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers remains strong. Unfortunately, the 1954 Prevention of Infiltration law,amended in 2012, has been used to stain all asylum seekers as "infiltrators.” Regrettably, the Israeli law does not discriminate between an infiltrator and an asylum-seeker. There are political leaders who have seized upon this and not only ignored the problem, but shamed the vulnerable populations. MK Miri Regev, of Likud, referred to these asylum seekers as "a cancer in our body”; this incendiary rhetoric led to a riot against asylum-seekers in the summer of 2012.

Many have opposed this hostile approach, from individuals, NGOs, and members of the government. Indeed, Israel’s High Court of Justice has twice struck down laws authorizing the indefinite detention of asylum seekers and ordered the closure of the Holot detention facility. The Knesset, nevertheless, responded before the recent elections by authorizing the detention of refugees for up to twenty months.

We are asking that their claims be processed and assessed, rather than deport them to their more-than-possible deaths. Israel cannot and will not merely absorb all those seeking asylum. The borders are now secure (only about 20 people came through last year) but those who entered already must responsibly be protected and put through the international law process.
And this is where the Haggadah can be a light for Jews to consider the plight of these vulnerable people, who only seek the liberty to go about their lives in peace. If we let our encounters with the traditional Passover story ring hollow, then it leaves us empty in a wash of nostalgia that doesn’t agitate us in the present. The rabbis taught:

For the greatest joy is to bring happiness to the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the strangers. For one who brings happiness to the hearts of these unfortunate individuals resembles the Divine Presence, as it says, "[God] revives the spirit of the lowly and the brokenhearted" [Is. S7:15] (Sukkah 49b).

To feel the full joy of Passover, indeed to actualize the ethos of the festival, we must commit to making our voices heard. In this way, the dignity of asylum-seekers in our land must be honored. For once we were refugees and that legacy is engrained in our national psyche to this day. It is only appropriate then, that our duty is to shepherd the ailing peoples of the world, leading them towards equity, fairness, and love. These asylum-seekers are part of our holy story. Will we have the spiritual sensitivity at the seder to hear them crying out from our haggadah?

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics.  Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”